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The healing

by Paprkut 

Posted: 06 January 2004
Word Count: 3033

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We cannot sleep. That sleep should come so easily to our subjects, but not to us is certain proof of the fault that lies upon our sovereign head. And how closely our faults nestle, that we have suckled like a mother down these forty years. We are afraid. Have we opened the door of death? We see him in our mind and though our eyes glaze and hover on the brink of release, no release comes, nor has done these last five nights. We are not dreaming and yet he is there before us, as real as though to touch, hanging from that tree, the tips of his horns glinting in the moonlight. Or are they just branches? Are we going mad? Perhaps we ... I ...

The facts in their entirety should be disclosed.

As we will have it, one bright morning in the month of October, the sun new up and calling to our restless heart that had long been taken with the affairs of court, we were set upon the hunt. We had woken with a slight fever, had to freshen our head. We drink our wits away and our subjects see it. But they are not Richard. And it is the weight that keeps us up till dawn and lowers our lips too frequently to the cup.

He saddled our horse. We would have none other do it. Tall, broad-shouldered and red-haired, he was responsible. When we first saw him he pleased us with the manner of his inclining, the motion of his head submissive, and eyes downcast in their bond of subject trust. He was a man who knew what it was to serve a king. 'Sire,' he said, and bowed his head to the weight that we carry. For he was but a man. And we were Richard.

We go on. On the path, our courtiers tagged along behind us like so many flies. How we detest their airs and graces. 'Would Sire care for a date?' Perfumed handkerchiefs dropping everywhere. As well to bring along our queen's handmaids. This merry England of ours has grown soft as a new bride, a realm of melancholy flautists and sighs. But the woods, our woods are still ancient oak and hawthorn and yew and the ghost of our land runs through them wild and alien even to us.

The sky was clear though the dawn had risen red with warning. He rode up front beside us. Sometimes he dismounted to check the path. His skill in woodcraft was written in our other huntsmen's faces, their sour glances to each other telling how near their nature dwelt to that of Caine, as near as his to Abel. Of course we heard their whisperings, the cheap way they challenged him, like swine about a stallion. But it is the business of a king to know gold from counterfeit. And where our predecessors had elevated only kin or flatterers, and, out of them,
built a wall against merit, we looked with a favourable eye on virtue. The gift of ...

But wait.

The dogs have caught something. We can hear them howling and the crack of branch and earth torn up as they race on. And with them runs our heart. For now we are fiercely urging on our horse. And then we see it running. Antlers high, for a second, and then the blur of movement vanishes and we pursue, hunched low to the saddle, it's there, it's gone, it's there, it's gone, a spectral being, and there we have it in the clearing. With a tight whistle, our sword is drawn and we are slung towards it like a catapaulted stone, the sky above a giddy blue, the trees about us shorn of substance and phantoms to our passage as on we come and on we come and on we ...

But we are down.

We're struck and winded. Staggering up, we see our horse cantering not far off. But look. The stag is before us. And with what a slant of diabolic red in its eyes. But what witchcraft's this, has thrown us from our horse? Wiping the mud and leaves from our hands, we start to back away. Its eyes do not leave us and we do not care for their look. Would charge at a king? But surely not? Yet now we cannot move. It is the weight that holds us, the load of our crown. The muscles through its body tighten in readiness and we know we cannot turn from its path. Now it bows its head before the weight we carry and yet it does not know us and its antlers are a tree in winter, shorn of leaves, a tree that moves, that rushes upon us like the end of the world.

And still we cannot move.

And suddenly

he is there, before us.

He leaps before us, is flung against us. It happens quickly and yet we note the imposition of his person upon our own as we fall beneath him and there's the sigh of a knife and blood in our face and as we rise to push him off we see the stag fallen close by, now just a mound of flesh, the steam wilting from its nostrils.

And now we hear voices, our courtiers: 'Is Sire hurt?'

But where were they?

Beside us, half-butchered, lies our huntsman groaning.

We rise to look at him.

'Fellow?' we said.

He opened his eyes. And though near death recalled himself and did not seek our eyes.

'Sire,' he said as we graciously took his hand and slid a finger up to his wrist where the pulse was slowing. His eyes closed.

We let go of his wrist. 'Fellows,' we said. 'We have lost him. We have lost the best of our huntsmen.'

Our princely heart was now hard with sorrow and we wanted to strike them all for their vain indifference, misjudgers of their own import, strike life itself that it should take the best and leave the dregs for us to swill on. And yet they did not know it, we could see, each fancied himself a king among men. But it is ever so, for the mind's mirror often lies and only the innocent can set here deceit, here truth, here what is so, here what not.

'Not so, your majesty,' came a voice from behind us, 'not so if you would not have it so.'

To contradict a king is death. It was on our lips to say this as we turned but the gaze that met our own knocked the words away and all that was left in us was doubt and a question.

'I am Philip of Urswick,' he said in answer to that unspoken question.

But he was who? His name we did not know, nor had we ever heard before. He was a thin man, bearded, and yet dressed well in bright-dyed clothes of green and gold - a man of substance then, yet we had not seen him at our court and he carried himself as though free of the law. He was still looking us straight in the eye, we noted, his eyes green and golden too and in them ...

As though detecting this imposition, he bowed his head yet there was something of mischief in the lightness of his bow that was not to our liking.

'From where did you spring?' we asked, for he was standing by a beech tree as if he had stepped right out of it and there was no sign of him before.

He looked at us with a glint in his eye, that same jewelled glint that alights on the highest branches of an oak tree under the setting sun.

'Your majesty is correct in his thoughts,' he said.

Which took us back. How could he so well know our mind?

'What is your business here?' we asked.

'To heal your man, if you are willing.'

'My man is hurt near to death. There will be no recovery for him unless your skill as a healer matches his as a woodsman.'

'My skills are my own and only the wood knows how deep they run,' he said and stepped lightly past us to kneel by the stag. With a soft rasp he drew a blade from his side though we had not thought him armed. Indeed, the folds of his clothes seemed to misdirect the light somehow, so that much might have been concealed on his person. Then, with two swift blows he severed the stag's antlers.

'What are you doing?' we demanded.

'Observe,' he said

We watched with wonder while he took the antlers over to the body of our well-loved huntmen, produced from a sheath at the nape of his neck another slim blade, and skewered holes in the horns, all the time working with a speed and sureness that marks a man who knows his hand from his eye and apprehends the world most keenly. Then with a piece of string drawn from his pocket, he proceeded to bind the antlers to our huntsman's head.

Our courtiers tittered nervously but we silenced them with a look. Our woodsmen looked on sceptically for they were men who believed in only what they knew, and they knew little.

Urswick now passed his right hand briskly over our wounded huntsman's body from head to stomach, not touching it, keeping it just a few inches above the body. As he did so, he groaned as though in pain and groaned again and then the groans were not those of the man Urswick, but of our injured huntsman, who was raising himself slowly on his elbow and looking around and curiously feeling the horns bound to his head. We knelt to him quickly.

'Fellow?' we said and saw with wonder that his fresh wounds were near closed up and the paleness of death had left his face. The face of Urswick on the other hand looked tired now, as though our huntsman's death had journied there but could not find a hostelry, and how old he was we could not say. We had taken him for a man of our own age at first, one in the prime of life, and yet he now seemed old, ancient, as though he had seen more winters than ourself and all our courtiers together.

'Philip of Urswick,' we said, 'by what skill we do not know, but you have saved our favourite huntsman. For this we are most humbly thankful and you shall have silver and gold as token of that esteem we hold you in.'

He looked at us and smiled and his smile was the melancholy acknowledgement of a solitary man. 'Your majesty is too kind,' he said. 'But I have gold and silver in plenty,' and here his eyes seemed to indicate the leaves at our feet and round about and on the trees.

'Very well,' we said, attempting to conceal our surprise, for we had not until this moment met a man whose heart could not be won by gold, 'what would you have?'

'I will take what is mine when it is time,' he said and smiled again and stepped away behind the beech tree.

'Wait,' we said and hastened round the tree. But he was gone. Where, how, we do not know. Like an ephemeral spirit, he had simply vanished.


It is now several months since these events occurred and we have not seen the magician since. It seems though that when he gave he also took, for our best huntsman was now no more our best, but wandered the woods at a loss and could no better lay a trap or track a fox than could our queen saddle a horse. And strange to tell, his fellow huntsmen, who before had scorned and envied him, now suddenly seemed to honour him and wait on his word as though he and not we were king. The which we could not pardon and more than this since we have no use in our court for currency without value, we invited our old favourite to leave our employment and practise apart from our household.

Perhaps in this we erred. For we gave him death, to whom we owed our life. But it is the business of a king to show the nature of a king and it was our nature then to be as iron that our kingdom not fly apart. For the age we were born into was weak and cared more for the look of itself in a mirror than for those ancient virtues that mark a man of substance whose footfalls carry as he travels, the which urged us to show ourself inflexible and obdurate on all occasions.

And after his dismissal, we thought the matter closed and thought no more of Urswick or his strange arts, but swept the memory from our mind, and in this, the affairs of court, our constant care, assisted.

So we were not prepared when, early in December, one of our servants hastened before us and this is what he said:

'He is dead, Sire. He is dead. Hanged from an oak tree. I saw it with my own eyes.'

'Who is dead?' we asked, though suddenly we knew the answer and something settled in our heart that felt like our own demise.

'The woodsman, Sire.'

'Ah,' we said, and, unwittingly, though our queen assures us it was so, made the sign against evil. 'Fetch me the body.'

Impatiently and with great foreboding we waited and could not rest till we had seen the body of our huntsman who had been saved by that fox Urswick, who, we were now convinced, was an agent of evil, only to take his own life. We closed the business of the day and retired to our chamber, yet no music nor even the soft caresses of our queen or favourite could soothe us.

Night fell and the servant did not return and restlessly we waited on his news. But in the morning he came before us and with him a boy and we could see from the pallor of their faces that something was amiss.

'Well?' we said. 'Where is the body?'

'Highness, I don't know what to say.'

'We did not ask for your speech. We asked for the body of our huntsman. Where is it?'

'Highness ... '

Our servant was too frightened to speak and we were about to send him away and his boy who clutched his cap and fawned on us like an unfavoured hound so that we were half of a mind to have them both whipped first. But then the boy spoke up.

'If you please, Sire, I saw it all, though maybe you won't believe me.'

'Then speak it all,' we said, 'and our own person will judge what truth is in your tale.'

'My father left me to watch the huntsman's body,' the boy stammered, 'while he went to report his death to you. And I watched it. I sat down against a tree and never took my eyes off it. But it grew late and still my father hadn't returned. I must have fallen asleep, I don't know. But when I woke, the body wasn't there. I stood up, looked all around for it. But it just wasn't there.'

'But then I saw something else. For standing by the tree was a man and yet ... and yet though it looked like a man, it couldn't have been a man, for it had horns, great horns like those of a stag. Sire, I swear I wasn't dreaming.'

'Then I heard horses and out of the wood rode all your woodsmen, Sire, as if they'd been summoned and with them came a single riderless horse, a black stallion as wild-tempered as I've ever seen.'

'Well, by this time it was dark and I was frightened and I wanted to run away. But I stayed and watched as this antlered figure mounted the horse while the other huntsmen cantered round him as if awaiting his command.'

'And then the wind blew icey and the horned man stood up tall in his saddle and he said: "Fellows, we have delayed enough. The night invites us. It is time to hunt." And then he rode off into the night at the head of all your huntsman. And, Sire, though I shudder to say it, it was like the devil himself riding forth from hell with all his fiends behind him. And as he rode away I caught sight of his face for just a second in the moonlight. But what I saw ... it was impossible.'

'Why?' we demanded, our heart full of dread. 'Who was the figure with the antlers you saw, boy? Who did you see riding at the head of our huntsman like the devil himself riding forth from hell with all his fiends behind him?'

'If you please, Sire,' said the boy, 'it was the hanged huntsman, your disgraced favourite. It was Herne.'

And then we wept. Though it were an indignity and never seen before, we wept. For we knew then what it was our huntsman, once our favourite, once a man, now hunted. And how even in death he served us, for did our subjects not hear his horn, did not all the souls of sinners hear it? Had he not travelled out from that other country which borders on our own, through which men pass but once and never return? Was he not come this day, this night to bring upon each his just dessert? Would he not even enter our hall and come upon our glorious personage? For the gate of death is wide and admits all. And so, once our sorrow had passed, we lit a candle and bade our servants do the same and pray, pray that the dark huntsman not come upon us this night and find us wanting. And so we prayed, and for the first time in our life, we who loved best the night, we prayed to see the morning.

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Comments by other Members

Anna Reynolds at 16:01 on 06 January 2004  Report this post
Paprkut, this is a strange and unusual piece of work. I'm assuming it's the beginning or near the beginning of a novel? although in a way it works pretty well as a finite piece. There's a strangeness about your language that sits well with the eerie tone and foreboding that runs throughout the piece. And it definitely feels as though this is part of a bigger picture; the magician come to set about a long and complex revenge. is there more than one royal or is it the royal we? and what is Richard? I'd like to know more about this, it's intriguing.

Nell at 18:50 on 06 January 2004  Report this post
Hi Ian, and welcome to WriteWords. There's something strange and very beautiful about this, both in the language itself and the images evoked by your use of words. I thought immediately that we (the readers, not the the royal 'we') had been transported back in time to one of the three King Richards, although the only one I know anything at all about is Richard the third. The mention of Herne towards the end would seem almost to push this further back in time, perhaps to the beginning of the Herne myth. Could this be how it all began? The piece felt complete to me, although I would love to read on.

I found a couple of typos: Caine Cain (unles it was spelt with an 'e' in those times.

icey icy.

Beautiful writing, looking forward to reading more of your work.

Best, Nell.


Please excuse my typos - I hit 'submit' accidentally.

Paprkut at 09:26 on 07 January 2004  Report this post
thanks for your comments, Anna and Nell! i really appreciate your taking the time to read and crit my work.

Nell at 09:30 on 07 January 2004  Report this post
Ian, won't you tell us a little about this piece? Like Anna I'm intrigued.

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